Are family businesses a good thing?

(part one of two posts)

My father Jay at work.

My father Jay at work.


For years, we’ve been advertising how Lehman’s was family-owned. We boast about how my father, Jay (at age 80) still comes to work every day. Of course, Dad readily admits to only working about three hours a day. We like to joke that this is one of the privileges that comes with 50 years of seniority!

Why do we advertise our family ownership? One of my Facebook Friends said it best.

jane lehman“I always prefer a family business to a chain.  Typically they provide better service and better knowledge of their products.” (http://www.facebook.com/jane.g.lehman)

OK, I admit that Jane is a Lehman. Possibly the fact that she’s my cousin makes her a little biased. But that doesn’t change what we believe is true: We think that the folks who work in a family business take better care of their customers. We would like to think that family businesses are more stable, longer lasting and more flexible.

However, I realized in a panic last week that some people might not agree with that. What if you think that family businesses are self-centered, over-bearing, mean-spirited, unwelcoming operations? What if you’ve found family businesses that have low standards, over-entitled kids and odd customer-unfriendly rules?

Let me start by saying that if you think those things about Lehman’s I’m very, very sorry. If that has been your experience with Lehman’s, then we’ve failed you miserably. Let me know about it and I’ll do my best to make it right. Send an email to info@lehmans.com or call 888-438-5346 and ask for me.

If you’ve worked with another family businesses that mistreated you, then give Lehman’s a try. I promise that we’ll do our best to prove it’s not like that everywhere!

In the meantime, I’ve been asking my Facebook Friends and Twitter Followers what they think about family businesses. Here is one of the replies.

Robin Somers Blitchock said, “We started our family business making iron art and railings over 18 years ago. Our sons worked for us for a few years until the downturn in the economy. Now it’s just my husband and I again. The boys have moved into the business world, but we believe they have learned a great work ethic by working in the family business. They never had anything handed on any silver platters, that’s for sure.”

I believe the greatest danger in a family business is allowing succeeding generations to have a sense of entitlement. I’ve seen some family-owned businesses fail in heartrendingly ugly ways because of entitlement.

To avoid this, founders must teach their children that customers are important. (I can remember lots of times when Dad lived this value by going out on service calls after hours to help a customer in need.) And, successor generations must prove their commitment by earning their way in. At Lehman’s and in most every successful family business I know, founders sacrificed to build the business and successor generations sacrificed to become part of the business. And, every generation did it with pride and eagerness.

One of the big advantages of a family business may be that business becomes part of family life. Successful family businesses find healthy ways to blend business with life. The older generation must teach their children that they are important. They have to understand that you can’t pass your values to your children if you don’t spend time together.

Robin’s boys took the values they learned working at Marvin’s Gardens on to successful careers. Whether the children of business owners stay in the business or go on to other things, a strong value system will make children grow into better adults.

In the early days, our business was dependent on the loyalty of our Amish customers, who accounted for 90% of our sales. And, although we relied on them and in many cases built life-long friendships, we certainly came from completely different worlds.

I remember one day when my then 9-year-old sister, Glenda (now Glenda Lehman Ervin, our VP of Marketing) and I were riding with Dad on a service call. We saw an Amish man who was hitchhiking. Glenda said, “Look Dad, Amish hitchhike just like Americans!”

Decades later, Glenda still gets teased at family dinners for that comment. But, it created a teachable moment for Dad to explain that every person, no matter how different they appear, shares enough common traits to be treated with respect and caring.

A deeply held commitment to important shared values is possibly the greatest and most important thing that makes a family business fun to shop in. A family shares values in a way that a group of co-workers, no matter how close, never can.

I hope that Lehman’s has demonstrated lasting and worthwhile values to you. What we do at work is a reflection of our family and what is important to us. I never forget that my name is hanging over the door.

Perhaps that knowledge is the most important thing that makes a family business worthy of your trust and loyalty.

Galen Lehman
Galen Lehman, President, Lehman’s

Galen Lehman
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PS – Read my blog next week for more thoughts about family businesses. I’m going to talk about what I think is happening at the family businesses you hate to shop.

Galen Lehman

About Galen Lehman

Lehman's CEO and son of founder Jay Lehman. Homesteads on five acres. Believes in a Simpler Life...rewarding relationships, fresh, local (preferably homegown) food and the gratification of hard work. Plant a tree!